School choice comes under fire in Senate
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School choice comes under fire in Senate

Date: February 23, 2011
By: Jordan Shapiro
State Capitol Bureau
Links: SB 129 SB 14 

JEFFERSON CITY - School choice debate raged in a Senate committee as members considered whether to allow students to leave the unaccredited St. Louis City Public Schools.

According to the Missouri Supreme Court case Turner v. Clayton, parents living in an unaccredited school district may send their children to any other public school. The Senate Education Committee heard testimony Wednesday about a bill that would create limitations for students wanting to leave. The bill only applies to St. Louis City Public Schools.

The bill sponsored by Sen. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis County, would prohibit students from leaving St. Louis City Public Schools.

Lembke said his so-called "Turner fix" would result in a mass exodus from St. Louis City and would deprive the struggling school district of necessary resources. 

"Ultimately this is about rebuilding community," Lembke said.

But one member of the committee disagreed with Lembke's bill.

"I'm afraid about making a student stay in a failing district... I would not want to be the parent in that district," said Sen. Brian Nieves, R-Washington.

Lembke said his bill was not an "exhaustive solution" but that St. Louis City schools have been making strides to improve academics.

St. Louis Superintendent Kelvin Adams said, "The district improved academically in all areas except one." The exception was third grade reading.  

Some members of the committee, however, were not buying the success.

"There is a lot of money being spent for little outcome," said Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-St. Louis County.

Cunningham said the current average ACT score is 15 and more than 72 percent of students needed remedial classes upon entering college. Rick Sullivan, a member of the St. Louis School Board and supporter of the bill, agreed but said these numbers have improved from previous lows.

Tensions rose when Don Senti, Interim Superintendent for Parkway School District, took the stand at the committee hearing.

Senti said approximately 19,000 students currently living in St. Louis City would leave the district to attend other schools, costing the state around $19 million.

Sen. Scott Rupp, R-St. Charles County, disagreed with Senti.

"If we are really going to look at it from the state's perspective, I don't give a crap about school boundaries," Rupp said to applause from School Choice advocates attending the hearing. "I want kids to get a good education and, if they come to Parkway, educate them."

Crystal Washington, an 11-year teacher, fought back tears as she said, "Children are afraid to go school [in St. Louis City]."

She said she has witnessed instances of sexual abuse and violence in her time as a teacher. Washington said she left the school district in December.

Despite the emotional testimony, one senator wanted answers.

Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-St. Louis City, asked, "Where did you report these violations?"

Washington said, "I reported them."

Although the public schools represented were hesitant to take on the burden of additional students, there was one group that was willing to accept the challenge.

"We have 8,500 spots that could be filled with students," said George Henry, superintendent for the Archdiocese of St. Louis Schools.

Leon Richardson, principal of Cardinal Ritter High School, said his Catholic school has 100 percent of students attending college and 80 percent who graduate within six years.

After the Archdiocese's testimony, Cunningham presented Lembke with another option.

"Would you be willing to let those county districts off if we would give all the kids in the city vouchers to go his [Richardson's] school?" Cunningham asked.

Lembke replied, "Sure."

The Senate Education committee will vote on the bill at its next meeting Monday.